BNSF Railway Co. and Idaho state officials plan to demonstrate to Kootenai County commissioners this month why the refueling depot on Rathdrum Prairie is fixed and capable of servicing 30 trains a day.
The commissioners will use information from the June 15 meeting to decide whether the county wants to revoke the permit that allows the depot to operate. The permit was issued in 2000 by a different set of county commissioners .
But first, the commissioners and their legal staff must figure out whether they have the authority to shut down the depot. They also want to know if the county can demand an independent review of the facility and whether the $5 million bond the railroad posted would pay for that study.
Kootenai Environmental Alliance and many local residents have called for an independent review.
“That’s the $64,000 question: ‘Do we have the ability to have a revocation hearing?’ ” Commission Chairman Gus Johnson said. “Who has the call? People can beat the drum all they want, but we have to make sure we have the authority.”
Just days before the meeting, BNSF will take 350 Hauser and Rathdrum residents on a free train ride from the refueling depot north to Sandpoint. Friday’s gesture is seen by some as a public relations ploy to regain the public’s trust, but the railroad’s spokesman says it’s just a way to thank the community where it has done business since 1873.
“Don’t go there,” spokesman Gus Melonas said when asked about the timing of the event. “This is not the first train ride we have provided in the area. We are a member of this community, and we will continue to operate here and play a key role in moving freights. We want to continue to be a good neighbor.”
Johnson – who demanded the informational meeting after the Idaho Department of Environmental Quality agreed May 9 to reopen the depot – said the presentations by BNSF and the department should help answer the remaining questions about why DEQ signed off on the depot’s reopening, whether the repairs are adequate and what is the likelihood of future leaks.
DEQ succeeded in shutting down the depot for nearly three months because of cracks found on the fueling platform and leaky pipe seals. Prior to the repairs, small amounts of diesel leaked into the region’s drinking water aquifer 160 feet below.
Gary Stevens, a DEQ hydrogeologist, said the agency will present the engineering redesign and plans for additional monitoring and maintenance at the facility.
“We want to explain to the public why DEQ agreed to the reopening,” Stevens said.
Mark Stehly and Steve Millsap, BNSF assistant vice presidents from Fort Worth, Texas, will provide details of the $10 million in repairs the railway has made since the leaks and cracks were detected. They also will discuss the new monitoring systems.
Melonas said that Hauser workers are fueling between 25 and 30 trains a day and that the system is functioning without any problems. Stevens confirmed there have been no problems.
Hayden resident Cecilia Nolthenius has been in charge of a petition drive demanding that government officials relocate the depot so it’s no longer on top of the aquifer. So far there are an estimated 5,000 signatures.
Nolthenius said Spokane residents need to start signing the petition because they are downstream from the aquifer and Spokane River, and would see the most impact if another spill occurred.
“We are not going to give up the fight,” she said.
Barry Rosenberg of KEA wants the commission and DEQ to have a joint public hearing to allow the public to ask questions.
“The public has been pretty much excluded from the process,” he said, adding that most of the specifics on remediation efforts at the depot haven’t been revealed.
Rosenberg also is disgusted with BNSF’s free train ride.
“I think it’s quite obvious they are trying to appease the public,” he said. “Free food, free drinks, a good time.”
Johnson also isn’t taking the afternoon rail excursion.
“I think the timing is suspicious in my opinion,” he said. “Would they be doing this if there would never have been any kind of leaks?”
Since the Burlington Northern and Santa Fe companies merged in 1995, the railway has offered employees in various areas across the nation a special train ride. This year’s trip is for employees between Great Falls and Everett, and somewhat follows the trail of Lewis and Clark. There are about 1,000 BNSF employees in the Spokane and North Idaho region.
The Hauser side trip for the general public and media was added to the schedule because BNSF saw it as a good opportunity to give residents in the towns closest to the refueling depot a chance to get a “firsthand feel of the railroad,” Melonas said. Riders will get on the train at the Hauser depot but won’t get tours of the site.
The mayors of Hauser and Rathdrum each got 175 tickets to dole out to local residents.
“They sailed out of here so fast,” said Hauser Councilwoman DJ Nall who advertised the tickets on the town’s Internet newsletter.
Rathdrum Mayor Brian Steele passed out half the tickets at a recent council meeting and gave the rest to the weekly newspaper to distribute.
Melonas said the 13 vintage passenger cars from the 1950s and ‘60s are full and that people have been asking for BNSF to add more. The cars will be powered by two brand-new diesel locomotives worth about $1.5 million each and fueled at the Hauser depot.
“I think people are looking at this for a neat opportunity because a lot of people have never been on a train,” said Steele, whose council hasn’t taken a position on the refueling depot.
Hauser Mayor Ed Peone said he’s heard some people will ride in protest.
He himself is somewhat conflicted. Peone has fond memories of riding the train to Glacier National Park as a child to visit his father who was a BN agent. But he’s opposed to the depot.
“We feel that BN has violated several of their agreements and should be called to task,” he said.
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